by Kara Odum Sexual discrimination in the work place has been plaguing women for decades. While the number of incidents has gone down, the persistence of this practice is disheartening. Starting around the 1960’s, people have been enforcing fair hiring practices by enacting laws and challenging errant companies in court. Several legal protections exist, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Pay Act, and the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, which are all enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Discriminatory practices may include sexual harassment, retaliation for reporting discrimination, denial of employment or promotions, and wage or benefit discrepancies. It’s also interesting to note what is federally protected and what is left to the states to decide. Under federal law, employment decisions cannot be based on “stereotypes or assumptions about the abilities, traits, or performance of individuals of a certain sex, race, age, religion, or ethnic group, or individuals with disabilities, or based on myths or assumptions about an individual’s genetic information,” according to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. However, there is no federal protection for discrimination based on marital status or status as a parent. Many states have some laws addressing these oversights, but it’s still startling that they are not federally backed.

In the past decade there have been some major cases addressing sexual discrimination at large, well-known companies. This past week Bank of America, the third largest company in the world according to Forbes, settled a sex discrimination case for 39 million dollars that involved brokerage operations from its Merrill Lynch Fifth Ave branch. The plaintiffs reported that managers at Merrill Lynch made sexist comments, gave them fewer opportunities to succeed, and assigned to them demeaning duties that their less-qualified male counterparts didn’t have to do. Cases like this are far too familiar across the US and pervade nearly every industry. Wal-Mart has been under fire over the past few years for some of its discriminatory practices. A major class action lawsuit made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 2011 before the judges decided that the case was too broad with too many diverse situations for it to be considered class action. Now, parts of the case are winding through regional courts. The outcome of these separate segments remains unknown. Complaints range from sexual harassment in Alabama to contraceptive coverage being excluded in health insurance plans in Georgia to underpaying hourly female workers in several states.

Historically, women have made large gains in equal employment, but it’s been a rough road and we are still a long way off of complete parity. For example, in 1890, women only accounted for 5% of doctors, which grew to only 17% in the 1980’s. Huge gains were made over the past two decades, however, and in 2012, 34.3% of all physicians and surgeons were women, according to catalyst. A similarly striking statistic: in 1930 only 2% of lawyers and judges were woman and there were virtually no female engineers. In 1989, the number of lawyers and judges rose to 22% and 7.5% for engineers. By 2012, the number rose again to 31.1% for lawyers and 14% for engineers. State-backed equality in the workplace has been a major driving force in getting more women participating in the workforce, but deeply ingrained bias remains.

On the positive side, women have been leveling the playing fields through education. Many industries will see a shift in the male-female ratio in the coming decades simply because women are now more likely than men to get a bachelor’s degree. This trend extends to graduate programs, where 62.6% of Master’s degrees and 53.3% Doctoral degrees are conferred to women according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Hopefully over time, this trend in education will transfer to a more gender equitable workplace; for now, though, outdated ideas about a woman’s place in the working world persist.